By Ashley Marshall, USTA Foundation.com
New York teenager Joanna Nieh is one of the best multi-sport athletes in America. Now, she’s quickly becoming one of the top young wheelchair tennis players in the world.
Joanna was born with spina bifida and has had her disability all her life, but she fails to let that define her as an athlete or as a person. Because of her mobility impairment, the 13-year-old usually gets around with leg braces and crutches, but for sports like tennis, she uses a wheelchair.
The eldest of four children, Joanna first picked up a racquet at an adaptive tennis program run by the Riverside Clay Tennis Association, a nonprofit volunteer organization in New York City. She participates in wheelchair tennis lessons and programs at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and she recently joined a summer and fall program at the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program (HJTEP). She also plans to play in a tennis program at the Cary Leeds Center for Tennis and Learning this fall. Both the HJTEP and Cary Leeds Center for Tennis and Learning are National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapters supported by the USTA Foundation.
“It’s fun,” said Joanna, who won her first Wheelchair A division title in the women’s doubles in Hilton Head, S.C., in early October. “I like playing with other wheelchair players and with my family. When I was going to play in my first tournament, I did not really want to go. But it turned out to be lots of fun. Now, I really enjoy playing in tournaments because I get to play against other players who are of similar level and have some good, competitive matches. The people are also nice and fun to play with.”
Joanna is currently ranked 30th in the world among wheelchair tennis girls, and she’s the youngest nationally ranked female in the country. But while tennis may be one of her sporting passions, it’s certainly not the only one. She’s the fastest 14-and-under girls’ wheelchair track athlete in America and is the current national 14-and-under gold medalist in a number of disciplines, including the 100- 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500 meters as well as the javelin, shot put and discus. She’s also a member of the NY Sled Rangers sled hockey team and, as one of the top juniors in the state, went to the U.S. women’s sled hockey tryouts earlier this year.
“Certainly playing wheelchair sports and tennis in particular has been great in giving Joanna all the benefits of playing sports,” said Joanna’s father, Jason, “including building self-confidence, living a more healthy lifestyle and having some really great experiences that she would not have had the chance to have otherwise, including being able to travel to play tennis. The Wheelchair Sports Federation has been particularly instrumental in making all this possible.”
Joanna spent two weeks taking part in the HJTEP’s summer programing at Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx this summer, where she was one of 35 youngsters ages 9 to 17, participating in a tournament-driven camp. She also returned with her brother, Caleb, for the fall and winter clinics.
“She is our first [wheelchair] student in the history of the program,” HJTEP operations manager Mikella Matthias said. “She is very self-reliant and the coaches really loved her and said she had a great energy and was passionate about playing tennis.”
Jason Nieh reached out to the HJTEP earlier this year to sign Caleb up for the summer program and he asked whether Joanna could participate in classes. Matthias and her staff reached out to a USTA tennis service representative, who worked with the coaches to get them certified to coach wheelchair athletes.
“Wheelchair tennis is by design perhaps the most integrative of adaptive sports,” Nieh said. “But standup tennis programs are at times uncomfortable with including wheelchair players. It would be great if tennis programs could integrate kids of all backgrounds by ability, not looking at disability. They are all just kids enjoying a great sport.
“Both of our kids who play tennis have had a great experience participating in NJTL programs. The families, coaches and kids have been great.”
Matthias said offering professional wheelchair tennis coaching opens up a new avenue to players and allows even more youngsters to play the game they love.
“We embraced Joanna with open arms,” she said. “[The other youngsters] embraced her and said she was courageous and so independent. Diversity and inclusion is a major part of our program in Harlem. We look forward to seeing Joanna develop.”
The eighth grader is now currently enrolled in a 10-week tournament development stage program with HJTEP, playing three days a week at the indoor facility on 143rd Street in New York City alongside 19 other able-bodied players between 11 and 14 years old. She also continues to practice at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (NTC) in Queens, where she is one of two junior wheelchair tennis players – and one of 20 wheelchair players overall – who train weekly with USTA coaching professional Aki Takayama.
Takayama, a USPTA/USPTR Wheelchair certified coach and former ITF wheelchair tennis tournament director, has worked with Joanna for more than three years and said she has a chance to play in the Paralympics one day, if she so chooses.
“She is a typical 13-year-old girl,” said Takayama, who has 21 years of coaching experience under her belt. “She’s giggly and shy and just out there for the pure enjoyment of being out there. She has a bright nature about her and she doesn’t look at her disability in a negative way at all.
“I don’t think she sees herself as any different from any other 13-year-old girl. She just happens to be in a chair and she doesn’t see that as a disadvantage.”
Of course, the NTC is best-known for hosting the US Open, and Joanna was a small part of it this summer. She helped conduct the wheelchair tennis draw ceremony and she said enjoyed meeting the athletes.
“I got to speak with some of them,” Joanna said. “It was inspiring to watch them play and see what they can do.”
Which is exactly how most people feel about watching teenage wunderkind Joanna Nieh.